The 2018 season marked defender Steven Birnbaum’s fifth campaign with D.C. United, and saw the center back reemerge as one of MLS' staunchest aerial defenders.
Since he joined the team in 2014, Birnbaum has been a consistent presence in the Black-and-Red’s central defense, and in recent years has taken on a stronger leadership role within the squad. Always a fan favorite, Birnbaum came into this season with the goal of maintaining his consistency in the back and returning to peak performance after an up-and-down 2017, and the Californian did just that with his impressive season in the District.
Birnbaum was one of only a handful of players across the league to play every minute with his club this year, totaling 34 matches and more than 3,000 minutes, breaking former defender Bobby Boswell's record for most minutes played in a regular season. Not only was Birnbaum racking up play time, but he was also asserting himself as one of the toughest central defenders in the league. The 27-year-old led the league in a number of defensive categories, including clearances, headed clearances and aerial duels won, inserting his name into MLS' Defender of the Year conversation. While Birnbaum didn’t walk away with the award, a trip to the postseason in Audi Field's inaugural season meant even more to Birnbaum, who approaches everything with a team-first mentality.
Birnbaum's improved performances as the season progressed and the Black-and-Red moved into their new home also aided in the defense's overall rise in play. Birnbaum's stingy defensive effort, coupled with the return of Bill Hamid and the improved health of Russell Canouse and Nick DeLeon helped the team earn five clean sheets in the second half of the season, as opposed to just one prior to Audi Field's opening. That defensive turnaround helped carry the Black-and-Red into the postseason, where they fell to the Columbus Crew in a heartbreaking penalty shootout, but proved to the District that the club is once again on the rise.
While Birnbaum had numerous impressive personal performances this year, one of the highlights of the defender's season was getting to open Audi Field and play in front of the Black-and-Red faithful in the stadium’s inaugural year.
“It’s awesome,” Birnbaum said of United's new home. “Not just our fan section, but everyone around, they get the guys going. They pump me up. After we score, say the game is in a lull, they’ll start chanting and get us back into the game and make sure we’re on our toes. They’ve given us a ton of momentum and, credit to them, they’ve been awesome. I’m so thankful to have the stadium here in D.C., and how much support we’ve seen from the city has been great.”
The 27-year-old has plenty to be proud of from 2018, but will look to raise the bar once again in 2019 when he returns to the District for the club's first full season at Audi Field. And if he can continue the momentum he established this season, Birnbaum may once again find himself in MLS Defender of the Year talks this time next year.